Lessons from The Green Hell

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The brief straightaway provided a short but much-needed respite from navigating the seemingly endless number of turns I’d been negotiating. But a couple of seconds later, I was going through the same procedure for the 400th time: look for the apex of the turn, brake, downshift, check the mirrors, ease into the curve. I had my line picked out, all was zen, until a second check of my rear view mirror showed me that they were gaining, and fast. A pack of three 911s, all in hard-core, track-specific GT3 spec. I blinked and they were next to me, the BRAPAPAPAPPPP!!! of nearly 1,500 combined HP thundering in my eardrums and passing with just inches to spare. German wolves out on the hunt.

It was just a normal day on the Nurburgring, also known as The Green Hell. But it was my first time there, and the experience felt anything but normal. Considered one of the most challenging and dangerous race tracks in the world, the Nordschleife (North Loop) of the Nurburging features 154 turns, is nearly 13 miles long, and has over 1,000 feet of elevation change. All nestled in the dark green forests of western Germany. It’s not a place for the faint of heart, as the ‘Ring has claimed over 200 lives over the years:

The Ring is an incredibly unforgiving place. With the exception of a handful of bends, there’s no run-off: if you fail to make a bend, you’re going to hit something hard. Worse, most of the bends and crests are blind, so the chances of one accident leading to a second one are also relatively high. – Ben Lovejoy, instructor for 9 years

3 BMWs, a Corvette, and a Porsche walk into a curve...

3 BMWs, a Corvette, and a Porsche walk into a bar…

Even on the afternoon I drove, there had already been 4 accidents that morning. And two more during my own session. Since I managed to both survive and not wreck (not even once!) during the course of six laps, I wanted to share some thoughts that only an adrenaline and danger-soaked afternoon can provide:

Find your limits and push them

They say that it’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. Why? Because driving well within the limits of your car really just isn’t that much fun. You need a bit of tire squeal to make you feel alive. But that doesn’t mean going out with reckless abandon from the first turn. It means that each lap, you push yourself a bit further until you’ve found just how fast you can navigate a bend before your tires start to protest. And you try to drive right at that level. In control, but at the limit. If you don’t find yourself smiling by then, you’re doing it wrong! Work life is the same way. If you’re always taking on projects that are easy and involve no risk, you’re just going to have another boring day at the office. Only by taking on challenges that are outside of your comfort zone are you really going feel alive.

Swallow your pride

With any skill, there is always going to be someone better than you. Driving is no exception. And at 100+ mph, it would be very easy to put your car into the wall by trying to keep up with someone who’s simply a better driver. But that doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t strong. You have two options: get pissed by comparing yourself to faster, more experienced drivers, or have fun by focusing on the continual improvement of your own skills. Outside of a car, it’s equally easy for me to find others with more talent, greater accomplishments, or who are just plain smarter. Dwelling on that would be poison, though. But focusing on how much I’ve improved since last year, last month, last week? Always a positive reinforcement.

Focus on the big picture

The best way to make it quickly and safely around the track is to think of all 154 turns as a series of connected movements, not as bunch of individual curves. More often than not, one turn begins just as another has ended. Your speed, line, and position from the preceding turn have an enormous impact on your ability to take the following one. So if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll find yourself continually unprepared for what comes next. Isn’t life the same way? Many of the decisions you make today will affect the options available to you down the road. Valuing the long-term effects over the short-term consequences is a skill I think most of us which we did better, race car drivers included.

Experts are your friend

If someone’s better at something than you, look at them as an ally, not an enemy. If they’re better, they can teach you. And if you can get taught, you’ll improve much faster. Which is why I hired a 27-year old German race car driver to show me the ropes. On a race course, he’s called an instructor; in business he’d be called a mentor. In either case, someone who can help you avoid mistakes that he’s made in the past is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to find someone like this and learn from them, even if they’re younger than you!

If I’m lucky enough to my wife let’s me drive the Nurburgring again, perhaps I’ll have some more thoughts to share. But in the meantime, I’ll simply leave this for you here: a 1987 video of a RUF CTR doing what’s regarded as one of the most impressive laps on the ‘Ring of all time. You’re welcome:

Can the Bible teach us how to build great startup teams?

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“Individuals don’t build great companies, teams do,” is a popular saying in the startup community, thanks to Mark Suster. Indeed, of all factors contributing to startup’s success: product/market fit, sufficient funding, competitive barriers, and so on – none are relevant without a good team in place.

But how do you know when you have a good team? The challenge with team building is that there are quantitative ways of assessing its health. You know when you need to raise money by looking at your balance sheet. You know that you’re on track for a product/market fit when customers start giving you money. But how do you know that your team has the right composition?

There’s a useful concept that comes from an unlikely source: the Christian church. I promise that this post won’t be about converting you to one religion or another, but keep an open mind. In his book, “Building a Discipling Culture“, author Mike Breen developed a concept called the Fivefold Ministries. The idea stems from the five core roles that are outlined Ephesians 4:11-16 – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ… 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

The concept here is pretty straightforward: each person has been given their own set of talents and abilities. Only by “unifying” these talents together can a group of people establish change. In the case of the Ephesians, it meant building a young church in the face of adversity. In the case of a startup, it means creating a new company in the face of risk and competition.

Let’s look closer at these five roles and see how they apply to startups:

Apostles – Thought leaders and visionaries, apostles are those who break new ground and challenge others’ view of the world. In the New Testament, the Twelve Apostles were those Jesus chose to establish Christianity. Tasked with developing a new religion in the face of very real persecution, the apostles of the early Christian church faced tremendous adversity in their task. Can you guess what the corollary in startups is? It’s the CEO and early founders: those who attempt to forge a new idea into a viable company. While company founders don’t have to face the risk of death in their pursuits (let’s hope!) their role requires a bold attitude and the ability to keep moving forward in the face of skeptics and competitors. While any startup requires it’s share of apostles, this role isn’t sufficient to get a company off the ground, as we’ll see in a moment.

On track to disrupt at least a couple industries, Elon Musk is a classic Apostle.

Evangelists – Evangelists make it their purpose to tell others about their beliefs and vision. They don’t necessarily set the vision (that’s up to the apostles), but they diffuse it, multiplying the reach of the apostles. Like apostles, though, evangelists also have to face doubters. They must possess the ability to win others over through intellect, empathy, charisma, and persistence. Evangelists in the early Christian church were responsible for converting others to Christianity. Their counterparts in startups are the salesmen, corporate developers, and marketers, who “convert” new relationships into partners, customers, and investors.

One of the early tech evangelists, Guy Kawasaki.

Prophets - This may seem like a stretch for startups, but not when you look deeper at the meaning of the word. It’s Greek root prophetes simply means “inspired preacher or teacher”.  In the Biblical context, prophets were inspired by God and cast a vision of what they believed would happen in the future. Relying on perception, intuition, and feeling, prophets are not unlike artists, who challenge our view of the world with their artwork. In the startup sense, prophets can take the form of consultants and advisors, often in the form of futurists. These visionaries look at how industry, technology, culture, politics, and other macro forces are interacting, and they predict what the world will look like in the coming years. While not as focused on implementation as other roles, prophets play an important part in helping startups challenge existing ways of thinking.

H.G. Wells told us much about what the future may look like.

Pastor - Pastors are simply those who care for others. They guard, protect, and nurture those in their custody. In the early Christian church, pastors were responsible for caring for young Christian communities that needed steady guidance and encouragement. In a startup, the needs of the young team are not much different. Faced with uncertainty about the future and lacking the cohesiveness that comes from working with others for a long period of time, startup teams need to be nurtured. A startup “pastor” may take the form of a special employee who has the rare talent of bonding people together, or in a more formal role, such as a human resources lead. In any role, pastors are crucial to developing and reinforcing a healthy company culture.

One of today’s leaders in developing a great company culture, Tony Hsieh.

Teachers - anyone who has a desire to know the truth and impart it to others can considered a teacher. Early Christians needed teachers to convey the lessons of Jesus and explain how they could be lived out in daily life. While we tend to think of teachers today as those formally employed as such, teachers in a startup can take many forms. It’s an engineer who helps his team understand a new technology. It’s the manager who makes sure his team understands the priorities of the company. It’s the analyst who looks closely at the way her company’s product is being used and provides insight into opportunities for improvement. And it’s the designer who helps his company adopt a common visual language in its products.

Leene Gade is awesome – head race engineer for Audi and the first female in that role to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, she knows how to teach her mechanics a thing or two.

As you’ve read this post, you’ve probably thought of a few people on your team who fit into these roles. Take a few minutes and review everyone who’s a part of your startup. Do you have strong players in each? Is everyone in a role that’s suited to their talents? What areas is your team lacking in talent?

Now consider what a team with solid players in each role would look like. You’d have a rich blend of people who can lead the formation of the company and set its vision (apostles), gain customers and advocates (evangelists), understand the future of your industry and your company’s role in it (prophets), keep employees empowered and happy (pastors), and ensure that the team is working on the right things and has the knowledge to execute (teachers). A pretty strong crew indeed.

Build for Everyone and You Build for No One

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Imagine that you’ve headed to your local Ford dealer, trying to find a new ride. An overly friendly salesman approaches, wearing the requisite Ford-branded polo shirt. “Welcome! What can I help you with today?”, he grins at you. You start to explain that you’re looking to replace your old Camry, but before you can say more, he interrupts. “Great! We have just the car for you. It’s called the Ford Everyone.” Looking around the dealer, you now notice that there’s a strong similarity among most of the cars. They all look just alike… they are all alike you realize, confused. The salesman goes on. “We designed the Everyone to suit all needs. We knew that some people want to pull a boat, and it can kind of do that, as long as it’s not too big and there aren’t too many hills. We also realize that others are looking for something more luxury oriented. Look at those leather seats! Oh, but to keep the cost under $15,000 (hey not everyone’s rich!), there’s no A/C. No worries, though, doors aren’t included either, so you’ll get all the airflow you need. If fuel economy is your thing, the Everyone has you covered. Its 3 cylinder engine gets 40 MPG! Of course it only goes 50 mph, but who needs to highways anyway? Got hot rodding in your blood? Well, it’s kind of a hot rod, just look at the flames we put on the hood! And we know how important family is. Did you know that the average family has 2.4 kids? Guess what? The Everyone has 2.4 seats in the back!” This sounds pretty ridiculous, and it is. No car manufacturer would try to make something that pleases everyone (OK, maybe there are a couple exceptions), because no one would buy it. Yet this is the same struggle that startups go through when trying to find product/market fit. If an pre-product startup employee tells you he knows exactly what he’s building and who it’s for, don’t believe him! No one knows for sure until their idea is validated by customers who give you money in exchange for what you’re selling. But the test process can be just as confusing as it is helpful. Early beta customers provide all manner of feedback, often conflicting: “make it red! make it blue! I need it to have 2.4 seats! I don’t want any seats!” Since it’s so exciting to know that anyone is using your Beta Whatchamacallit v0.9, the temptation is to respond to all customer feedback as though it’s sage wisdom. And while customer feedback will indeed the most source of guidance for your product, trying to accommodate all of it will please no one and result in a mediocre product. So what to do? Here are three thoughts: 1. Make a guess and cast your net. Early on, you won’t have any customers, and certainly no feedback from them. But you still need to think hard about who your product is for, and why they’ll care about it. Write out your assumptions about a prototypical customer: we’re building this to help a owner/operators single-location restaurants reduce the cost of managing inventory. You might be wrong, but defining your target early on gives you something to reflect against later on. 2. Encourage and catalog feedback: Your first customers won’t all fit exactly within your target audience. Some will be friends, family, neighbors. The test period is messy like that. And if you have a dozen beta users, you’ll probably hear a dozen different ideas on what you should do differently. That’s OK. Don’t worry about whether feedback is what you want to hear or if it even makes sense. Just ask, listen, and share what you hear with your team. 3. Hone in. Go through this exercise enough and you’ll start to see where you can focus. The customers who most need what you’re building will be the ones who give you the most ardent feedback and ask the most difficult questions. But they’ll also be the ones who think that what you’re doing is useful enough that they’ll also keep using your product and even recommend it to their friends. It’s with these folks that you have the strongest chance of success. Especially if your beta product is very beta (i.e. it’s 3 PM and you can’t believe it hasn’t crashed yet today), you’ll find that your customers who need the product the most will be the most forgiving if something goes wrong. That will change one they start relying on the product, but that’s a topic for another post. We went through this at my startup just this past year. We have a product that’s generally designed to help local business with word-of-mouth marketing. In some locations where we thought it would be a home run, it bombed. But another vertical ended up being hugely responsive, and we decided to focus there. We catered our branding and design just to this group, and we ended up being featured on an industry podcast, getting some extra-nice treatment at some industry events, and even had people ask to come work for us! Along with that, we saw a solid amount of organic growth. We know that in the long-term, our customer base will be much bigger than this specific industry. But because we have found a customer that truly loves what we offer, we’re focusing primarily on them for the next chapter of our company’s growth!

Can an app get you hooked on sleep?

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Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming ProductsUnless you want whatever product you’re working to be ignored, go out and read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal. It’s a short primer on the nuts and bolts of how products ingrain themselves into our everyday routines. As Nir puts it, “the ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the company’s product or service as the source of relief.” In the book, he outlines four components of a truly additive product:

  1. Trigger
  2. Action
  3. Variable Reward
  4. Investment

I wanted to see how well an app I regularly use stacked against these criteria. It’s an app called Sleep Cycle, which uses my phone’s accelerometer to measure the quality of my sleep each night. I’ve been using it pretty religiously for several months now, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s a habit forming product. Let’s see if it meets all of the criteria…

Trigger

There are four types of triggers outlined in the book, but just two apply here: internal and owned.

Internal is “When a product becomes tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing routine…”. Considering that I sleep everyday (it’s a great way to fend off insanity if you haven’t tried it), that’s a pretty solid internal trigger. I go to sleep; I am triggered to use Sleep Cycle. Since the app also serves as my alarm clock, it’s actually ingrained into two routines.

Owned refers to triggers that “consume a piece of real-estate in the user’s environment.” The app lives right there on the first page of apps on my iPhone home screen, so it does provide a trigger this way. For a phone app, though, “taking up a piece of real-estate” is pretty much a given, so I can’t give the app any extra credit here. However, app notifications fall under the umbrella of owned triggers, and it’s interesting that the app doesn’t offer any. I would think that setting up a simple reminder to “Turn on Sleep Cycle” at a set time every day would be a no-brainer.

I’ll give the app a 6 out of 10 here – the nature of the app lends itself well to routine, but it could go a lot further to remind new users to keep using the tool.

Action

The book references the Fogg Behavior Model, which says that “a given behavior will occur when motivation, ability, and a trigger are present at the same time and in sufficient degrees.”

We’ve already touched on trigger, so how about motivation and ability?

It’s easy to find motivation to sleep given the right circumstances.

Eyal defines motivation it as “the level of desire to take that action.” For a first time user of the app, the primary motivation is to “sleep better” (it works by waking you up during the correct point in your sleep cycle). That’s an interesting proposition (who doesn’t want to sleep better), but it’s fairly vague in terms of what that actually means. Further more, the App Store page used to market the app doesn’t go a long way to really sell you on the concept.

Ability is simply how hard it is for a user to take an action. E.g. using Craigslist vs filing your taxes. Sleep Cycle is pretty easy to use, simply turn it on and place the phone facing down on your mattress. However, to get real benefit from the app, you need to use it consistently, and there’s kind of a steep learning curve to wade through all of the reports. You also have to make sure the phone is plugged in, which is a pain if you’re just exhausted and want to go right to bed! Of course the final step can be pretty tough (you actually have to go to sleep), but that’s not the app’s fault!

Let’s give it a 5.

Variable Reward

“Without variability, we are like children in that once we figure out what will happen next, we become less excited by the experience,” Eyal says. This is why the math behind slot machines is so important. If you simply won a small, fixed prize for every, say, ten spins, the experience would get dull pretty quickly. Apps are no different.

This is where Sleep Cycle really shines. Each morning when you wake up, the app rates your sleep quality on a scale of 0 to 100. 100 being a perfect night’s sleep, and 0 being, well, miserable. Yes, I did get a perfect 100 once; it took me 9 hours 29 minutes back in December. My worst was a 29%. That was a rough morning. Most days it hovers around 80%.

But the great thing about the sleep “score” is that it makes you feel as though you can “win” at sleep. It’s literally a game. You really don’t know what your score will be in the morning (you might have a vague sense if you were up all night worrying how you’ll pay back that Mafia loan), so each morning starts with the itch to satisfy your curiosity about how well you did.

I’ll give Sleep Cycle an 8 here.

Investment

Eyal points out how several studies have shown that we tend to over-value things that we’ve spent more time doing: “Of course everyone likes hearing the accordion, I’ve practiced every day for the past 8 years!”

One of the ways investment manifests itself is through the accumulation and interaction with data. And boy does Sleep Cycle have the data. Not only is it measuring sleep quality each night, but it tracks quality by day of week, duration in bed, the time you went to bed, and more. You can even add something called “Sleep Notes”, which are basically tags assigned to each night. For example, if you regularly each 5-alarm chili, you can set up a “5-alarm chili” Note. The app will compare your sleep quality on days you ate said chili to days you had a normal diet. After a while, you might see that your chili feasts cost you major sleep points, and you’ll decide to back off the Tabasco a bit.

Real life example: I switched to a new mattress in early November, and my sleep quality consistently improved since then. Money well spent!

Sleep Cycle gets a 9 out of 10 here; the longer you use the app, the more valuable (and interesting) it gets.

Summary

If we average out these scores, Sleep Cycle gets a 7/10. That’s not a terrible score, but the app could much improve it’s use of triggers to encourage new users to use the app regularly. It’s the kind of product that if the user wants to make using it a habit, it’ll probably happen. But for the curious user who downloads the app on a whim, they’re unlikely to be turned into a habitual user through the “hooks” of the app alone.

If you haven’t read Hooked yet, give it a read. It doesn’t commit the sin that most business books commit of being way too long, but there’s enough useful information in there to be valuable to almost any reader. Cheers!

Your New Job: Are You a Savior or an FNG?

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You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack 
You may find yourself in another part of the world 
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile 
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife 
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

- The Talking Heads, Once In a Lifetime

…and you may find yourself hired for a new job at a startup, in which case you might ask yourself, “well, what do I do here?”

This post is about exactly that.

First, imagine that all new hires are lined up on a spectrum. At one end you have the FNG; at the other The Savior. Who are these people and which one will you be?

FNG stands for “F**king New Guy”. It’s the guy who just shows up clueless, doesn’t know the culture, lacks any sort of useful knowledge (or the wherewithal to share it), and generally gets in the wayYou never really like this guy because he doesn’t know why he’s there, and neither do you. He stands around and just does what he’s told, and it’s exactly who Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris, became in the 1986 classic film, Platoon:

On the other end of the spectrum lies The Savior, the genius whose transformative insight or wisdom forever changes the way his company works. It’s the person every company aspires to hire. Unfortunately, finding a Savior is about as easy is spotting a unicorn. In the movie Moneyball, the Oakland A’s get lucky and identify one in Jonah Hill’s character, Peter. By looking at the struggling baseball team’s player selection process in an entirely new way, Peter completely reworks the way the team recruits and helps turn the organization around:

Obviously, no one envies Chris and few wouldn’t love to be as insightful as Peter, but what really separates the two? Here are three factors:

Attitude

The Moneyball clip doesn’t reveal this, but Peter started exploring new ways of selecting players long before he had any real influence on the A’s. He wasn’t hired to be “influential”, but he didn’t wait for his boss’s prompting before engineering an entirely novel player selection methodology. He just did it. The fact that Peter was at his first job and in a relatively junior position didn’t stop him, and it shouldn’t stop you. Just because you’re new and/or junior doesn’t mean you can’t start asking lots of questions and figuring out where you can add value. If you’re waiting around for someone to tell you how you can help, you probably won’t be around for long.

Perspective

Your naivety in a new industry or at a new company may be your greatest strength. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for outsiders to use their unique perspective to help companies do things no one thought possible. Witness Steve Jobs’ disruption of the music and mobile phone industries; the exploits of Sir Richard Branson, who said, “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them… “; and Alan Mulally, who brought Ford back to profitability despite having no experience in the automotive world. You may not be a captain of industry, but if treat your “new guy” perspective as an asset, you’ll go far.

Environment

Sometimes, the culture of a startup has just as much of an influence on how effective new hires are as anything else. The Vietnam military culture that Chris faced in Platoon certainly didn’t foster the development of new recruits, so fresh soldiers were all but guaranteed to be FNGs. Ask yourself: does the company you’re planning to join encourage new ideas and different ways of thinking? Have they asked for your perspective on problems they’re currently tackling? Do the people you interview with ask for your critiques on how the company can improve? If the answer to any of these is no, then don’t work there. Chances are, your new ideas won’t go very far. Instead, find a company who values your input, even if your ideas aren’t as helpful at first because you lack context.

Startups are quick to hire, and quick to fire, so hopefully this post moves you a bit less of an FNG and slightly more of a Savior. Good luck!

Waving at Strangers (or 6 Brands That Bring People Together)

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In high school I used to wave at strangers all the time. No, not because I was awkward at meeting girls (OK, maybe I was), but because they (and I) happened to be driving the same particular brand of car. Can you guess it? Here’s a hint: “It’s a ____ thing, you wouldn’t understand“, reads a common decal that its owners like to place on their windshields.

That’s right… Jeep. Let me explain. Jeep owners love their Jeeps. Even more, they love talking to other Jeep owners. Why is why there’s an unpublished rule that when you’re driving a Jeep and you see another Jeep, you wave. And if you’re stopped next to another Jeep at a stop light, you might say something profound to the other driver, like “Hey, nice Jeep!”. At which point, the other driving will reply with something equally thought-provoking, like “You too, bro!”

Owning a Jeep means being part of something special, a community of owners who share similar passions. There are even Jeep Jamborees all over the country for those who want to pay money to drag their cars over rocks and meet other people doing the same thing.

The strong owner community is one of that Willys/Kaiser-Jeep/Chrysler (and now Fiat) has been able to produce and sell essentially the same vehicle for almost 70 years, with the open-top CJ that became available for consumers in the 1940s that turned into the modern Wrangler. That’s despite the fact that these cars consistently get poor reviews from Consumer Reports. Of course I have zero scientific evidence to substantiate this, but that’s one of the perils of reading my blog over The New England Journal of Medicine.

But look – when you by a Ford Explorer, you become a car owner. When you buy a Jeep, you become part of a club. For many, that’s reason enough to choose the Jeep brand over another. I consider this a competitive advantage for Jeep. It’s just not something most car manufacturers can claim they have. 

Unfortunately, strong customer communities are rare for brands, but here are 5 brands more brands that do a great job of bringing people together:

Airstream

I didn’t know that Airstreams were a thing until my relatives bought one. But going on “rallies” with other Airstream owners is a big event, and another reason to buy an Airstream over a less expensive brand. The largest Airstream club Wally Byam Caravan Club International, has over 14,000 members.

Minecraft

While many “social games” have strong communities of players, Minecraft is one of the few where you actually play with other people, simultaneously. In case you’ve never played, the game is basically Legos meets World of Warcraft. Its players have built some amazing things together, like this stunning recreation of Game of Thrones. And I thought I spent too much time on video games!

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Harley Davidson

Does this really need an explanation? A Harley does the exact same thing as a Honda Goldwing, but you don’t exactly see droves of Goldwing owners banded together on a highway. Buying a Harley is the price of entry for joining any variety of riding clubs, ranging from those catering to suburban offices workers wanting to look a little badass to full blown outlaws.

CrossFit

Go to your run-of-the-mill gym, and chances are you barely talk to a soul while you’re there. If you do, it’s probably the buddy you brought with you. But join a CrossFit, and if you haven’t met at least a few people after a couple classes, you’re doing it wrong. The group orientation of the classes and the high  intensity they encourage really fosters a sense of camaraderie. And that’s a big part of what keeps members coming back.

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Linux

A computer operating system built on the “free and open source” model, Linux has seen over 8,000 developers contribute to its code base since it was released in 1991. You may not run it on your machine, but more than 95% of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers run some variant of Linux. It’s used widely by developers, with many cities hosting Linux User Groups to allow software engineers to learn from each other and share their appreciation for the operating system.

Know of any other brands that thrive on their strong customer communities? Let me know!

Delta’s Marketing Department is Better Than Yours

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If you haven’t seen Delta’s latest pre-flight safety video yet, it’s a riot. It’s the latest in a string of comical takes on the standard (and usually mind-numblingly boring) safety films that anyone who’s flown in the past decade is already familiar with:

OK, so I’m sure you laughed a little bit. But I wanted to break down why this video is such a win from a marketing perspective. Making a funny video is one thing. But making an otherwise dry by necessary production into something that people actually seek out to watch is another feat entirely. Let’s take a closer look:

1. It isn’t funny for it’s own sake. Delta (and presumably the FAA) really do want you to watch their video. The information it conveys could literally save your life. Making the video humorous ultimately serves to get passengers watching, which is a good thing. This is probably the most important lesson for anyone involved in technical writing or user experience: just because your subject is serious doesn’t mean that the message has to be. Of course, the Germans learned this decades ago: here’s the classic example.

2. Comedy doesn’t distract from the content. This is actually hard to do. But most of the humorous bits relate directly to the message conveyed at that time. For example, when passengers are told to ask flight attendants if they have any questions, they see a business man looking for help with his Rubik’s Cube. And it’s hard to ignore how to deal with oxygen masks, because seeing Arf don his own mask is pretty unforgettable.

I've never solved one either.

I’ve never solved one either.

3. The humor isn’t exclusive to a certain age group. Even if you didn’t grow up in the 80’s, watching the hair metal guitar player store his “ax” in the overhead compartment is going to make you laugh no matter what. So is the guy in the multi-colored track suit dancing the robot as he takes his seat in the exit row.

4. If you did live through the 80’s, the video is especially funny. It starts with watching the straight-laced business man place his Devo energy dome underneath the seat in front of him. References to mullets, Teddy Ruxpin, Gameboy, Atari, croquet, and Tab ensue. And the piece de resistance: seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reprise his role in the classic movie Airplane, as Roger Murdock, the co-pilot.

"I'm sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I'm the co-pilot."

“I’m sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.”

5. They didn’t overthink it. There are some temporal challenges with the video, namely that the passengers seem to have been transported from 30 years ago to the present. Not only are they seated in a modern 737 that doesn’t allow smoking, but they’re told not to use wifi, which doesn’t exist in their era. Delta could have stopped halfway through the script to realize “Um… this doesn’t actually make logical sense…”, but they pressed on. 

6. It respects the passengers. Perhaps Delta considered forcing everyone to watch the video by yelling in a thick German accent: “NOW YOO MUST VATCH ZEE SAFETY WIDEO!” But they thought better of that and actually decided to make the passengers’ day slightly better by making them laugh. They even give a nod to those who’ve flown with Delta for a little while: the red-headed girl at wagging her finger is supposed to be the original Delta redhead in their first lighthearted production several years ago.

"Smoking is NOT ALLOWED, on any Delta flight..."

“Smoking is NOT ALLOWED, on any Delta flight…”

This is marketing done right. Delta has effectively used humor to make its messaging more effective and to improve its customers’ view of the brand. Now can every other company who thinks it’s too boring to be interesting please take note?!?